By Peter Lindblad
From the lost-and-found box comes a collection of rough-and-tumble demos from The Bootheels, the Replacements-obsessed band Jakob Dylan was in before the Wallflowers. Duluth, Minnesota’s Low comes in from the cold with its latest masterpiece, Motrik sparks a krautrock revival, Flood Twin warns of a new surge in post-punk insurgency and singer-songwriter James McMurtry chronicles the current state of a country divided. Let’s party.
Low – Hey What (Sub Pop Records)
The transformation is almost complete. Mutating from a minimalist strain of bleak, wintry “slowcore” – stenciled with threadbare rusticism and quiet desperation – into awe-inspiring, monolithic world-building, the scope of Low’s sound experimentation expands on Hey What.
What used to barely rise above a whisper has grown considerably louder, as the constantly evolving scenery and pounding waves of oceanic electronica on Hey What assume Christopher Nolan levels of cinematic, surreal grandeur. The effect is breathtaking, with the dreamy beauty of “Don’t Walk Away” afraid to let go and the towering swells of “I Can Wait,” “All Night” and an astonishing “Hey” threatening to send a tempest-tossed Low to a watery grave. While the influence of sonic manipulator BJ Burton, producer of Low’s last three albums, weighs heavily on Hey What, neither the noisy, shape-shifting chaos of powerful opener “White Horses” nor the stormy, layered distortion of “Disappearing” can swallow whole the haunting, meditative harmonies and affecting, drawn-out melodies of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker.
Lyrically, it’s hard to tell if they’re emotionally lost at sea on the visionary Hey What or manning the lighthouse, trying to keep troubled souls like theirs from wrecking. Artistically, though, Low’s hands are firmly gripping the rudder, confidently steering this ship into unchartered territory with no fear.
Flood Twin – S/T (http://www.floodtwin.com/)
Never mind the sandbags. Nothing can hold back the swift-moving waters of Flood Twin’s hypnotic, darkly subversive post-punk and danceable, militant funk, the dam failure caused by lead singer and bassist Grant W. Curry, guitar saboteur J. Leslie Hedberg and drummer Sterling.
Formerly of the New Orleans underground rock cabaret Pleasure Club, Curry is the Atlanta avant-garde trio’s sinister lynchpin, grooving incessantly, his echoing, often-distorted vocals full of foreboding. Tight as latex, Sterling’s driving, industrial beats are locked in throughout, while Hedberg wraps it all in serrated coils of tortured wrangling, as they salvage Public Image Limited’s metallic, atmospheric ruins and conduct marching drills with Gang of Four.
Ensconced in Joy Division’s gothic gloom, “People” is a roiling cauldron of sinewy energy, with the trance-inducing “Control” exerting its mesmeric influence and the muscular, jack-booted “Primal” and “Syria” building tense, irresistible momentum. Meanwhile, the rippling “Break Your Heart” and the creepy “Downtown Zeroes” are narcotic dub-noir immersions, and “If You Were Jesus” is a slowly unfolding nightmare that’s eerily reminiscent of the unforgiving soundscapes of Swans. Michael Gira would certainly appreciate Flood Twin’s disturbing lyricism.
MOTRIK – Moon: The Cosmic Electrics of MOTRIK (Jealous Butcher Records)
Alien transmissions from Motrik’s mesmerizing Moon: The Cosmic Electrics of MOTRIK have reached earth, carrying on the obscure krautrock conversations of Can and Neu! The dialogue began with previous EPs and albums like 2020’s Artificial Head, as the four-man crew stationed in Portland displays fluency in the nearly dead languages of their sonically innovative heroes.
Riding out the space-rock storms of Hawkwind and setting controls for the heart of celestial darkness with the cold, electronic precision of Kraftwerk, Motrik has the conn these days, sending out cryptic messages via light and thin, disembodied vocals from Erik Golts. They float through the blinding supernova that is “Silver Twin,” with its insistent groove and blowouts of crashing noise, and lead a march of clean, clipped funk across the dry, lunar terrain of the irresistibly catchy “Particle Maze,” the two opening tracks sending Motrik on a sprawling, hypnotic adventure. Hitchhikers are welcome.
The longest journeys on Moon: The Cosmic Electrics of MOTRIK are the smooth, propulsive “Streamline” and “Space Elevator,” with their driving, repeated drum patterns, spreading drone and reverberating, bottomless tunnels of acid-soaked guitar effects. Even more expansive and haunting, “Stabilize” is starry, atmospheric, and spellbinding, chugging away rhythmically with single-minded vision and a tireless motor, while “Yellow Moon” has an undercurrent of supernatural menace that is unsettling.
Divergent flows of majestic prog and trippy, kaleidoscopic psychedelia wind their way through Motrik’s third LP, finding pathways charted by like-minded contemporaries Moon Duo and Wooden Shjips that end up in another galaxy far, far away. The space race has a bold new entry.
The Bootheels – 1988: The Original Demos (Omnivore Recordings)
Maybe it is better to burn out than fade away, although The Bootheels never got a chance to find out. They splintered after a brief, shambolic existence, as Jakob Dylan – yes, that Jakob Dylan – flew away to art school in New York and everybody went their separate ways a couple months in. Gigs were hard to come by anyway.
Young and unabashedly in love with The Replacements, The Bootheels played raggedly tuneful rock ‘n roll that was raw and honest, with angsty, often funny lyrics, beat-up melodies and loads of big, scratch-and-dent hooks. Luther Russell was in charge, handling most of the songwriting, playing bass and singing with a shredded larynx before launching an acclaimed solo career and later teaming with Big Star’s Jody Stephens in The Pretty Wrongs. The sharp, stinging guitar jabs and haymakers thrown by Dylan and fellow future Wallflower Tobi Miller, as well as the drum bashing of Aaron A. Brooks – fans of Lana Del Ray and Moby are certainly familiar with his work – nearly sent The Bootheels off the rails, but they held it together for as long as they could.
Evidence of The Bootheels’ scruffy charm and unheralded greatness wasn’t lost. Imperfect and unclean, the tracks gathered for 1988: The Original Demos, produced by Russell and the Grammy-winning Cheryl Pawelski, burst forth with unrestrained zeal and wild energy, as the deliriously catchy “Empty Wallet, Empty Bottle, Empty Heart,” “Wasted Dime,” “Got Me on My Knees” and “Queen of Hearts” whirl about in dizzying melodic frenzies and fall to the ground in utter exhaustion.
Evoking the doomed, crash-and-burn spirit of Johnny Thunders, “Seven Seas,” “Thing Called Love,” “The Deal” and “Interstate 68 Blues” are classic, accessible pop fallen angels found wallowing in the gutter with a brokenhearted Paul Westerberg. Bonus tracks “Images of You,” “All I Want is You” and “Think of the Time,” taken from band rehearsals, are just as gripping, if less polished. Packaged with a smattering of candid and live photos, plus an enthusiastic essay from Scott Schinder and enlightening conversations with band members, 1988: The Original Demos tells The Bootheels’ story with unbridled enthusiasm.
James McMurtry – The Horses and The Hounds (New West Records)
A plea of temporary insanity is issued in the remorseful “Decent Man.” Reflecting on a senseless act of gun violence and the damage done, James McMurtry drawls, “When you’re shooting at a coffee can, a .38 don’t kick that bad.” It’s different when the target happens to be another man … and a friend.
McMurtry continues, “But it kicks right through my bones every second of every day/Clacking by like cobblestones under broken wheels.” The guilt never goes away. As for McMurtry, he’s been gone for a while. A real reckoning of honest, gripping folk-rock brushed with well-worn Americana, The Horses and The Hounds is his first album in seven years, reuniting the highly literate McMurtry with producer Ross Hogarth at Jackson Browne’s Groovemaster’s studio. Poignant and impactful, the yearning “Decent Man” shows McMurtry hasn’t lost his touch for subtly embedding topical political messaging inside deeply personal narratives.
Such is the case, too, with “Operation Never Mind,” a savage critique of wartime apathy that blasts the media for failing to show the horrors of battle. The caravan of sneering satire that is “Ft. Walton Wake-Up Call” rolls down the road with cutting observations of trivial domesticity and self-absorbed indifference, while the affecting, bittersweet love story “Canola Fields” slowly picks itself off the ground as it ages not so gracefully, rising to meet a new day. Lonely and vulnerable, McMurtry sings, “And there’s not much moving on the romance radar/Not that I’m craving it all that much/But I still need to feel every once in a while/The warmth of a smile and a touch.” It’s a beautiful, touching admission, whereas the low-down, crotchety “If It Don’t Bleed” is more defensive and resilient, the slow-burning, rugged title track digs up gnarly, mean hooks, and “Blackberry Winter” relates the sad futility of a couple that can’t stay together.
Just as McMurtry etches detailed, evocative lyrics full of universal truths, guitarist David Grissom scrawls out blue-collar guitar licks all over The Horses and The Hounds that bear his undeniable signature, backing vocals add richness and character and the whole assemblage of players sits snugly in the pocket throughout. It’s a combination that works every time for McMurtry.